[Cultural Attachment]

Chuck Berry changed the world in more ways than you realize

Chuck Berry at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1972.
Photo: Las Vegas News Bureau / Courtesy
Smith Galtney

On March 18, Charles Edward Anderson Berry—the genius we mortals knew as Chuck Berry—died at the enviable age of 90. True icons like Berry are rare, his influence impossible to overstate. As Keith Harris wrote earlier this week in City Pages, “Make your list of everything that didn’t suck about American life in the second half of the 20th century and just see if Chuck’s influence isn’t lurking at the root of damn near every item.” Here are just a few things we can directly attribute to Chuck, starting with the obvious …

Rock ’n’ roll. If anyone invented it, it was Chuck Berry. By fusing blues licks with country and Western story songs, the St. Louis native innovated the backbeat and the myths that cemented a new American art form. Berry wasn’t an album artist (he’d let his disciples tackle that), but his monumental songbook is well preserved in compilation. Start with The Great Twenty-Eight or The Definitive Collection for a quick taste. Then spend all weekend with the 71 songs in The Chess Box.

“Surfin’ USA.” Berry is largely responsible for the very existence of The Beach Boys, and their 1963 classic is a wholesale rip of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Three years after its release, Berry received a co-writing credit.

“Come Together.” Berry is largely responsible for the very existence of The Beatles, and for this song’s kickoff lyric, John Lennon lifted “Here come ol’ flattop” straight from Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” (though he changed “He was movin’ up on me” to “He come groovin’ up slowly”). As part of an out-of-court settlement, Lennon covered “You Can’t Catch Me” on his Walls and Bridges album.

“Star Star.” Berry is largely responsible for the very existence of The Rolling Stones (okay, I’ll stop), and this is the band’s greatest, sleaziest Berry tribute. If Chuck had to keep his lyrics in check (“Tulane and Johnny opened a novelty shop, back under the counter was the cream of the crop”), the Stones let it rip in this ode to an internationally adored groupie whose “tricks with fruit was kinda cute,” who gave head to Steve McQueen and keeps her, well, you know, clean.

Rock as poetry. Robert Christgau called Berry “the greatest rock lyricist this side of Bob Dylan,” and Dylan anointed him “the Shakespeare of rock ’n’ roll.” Not only did Berry add some tasty new words to the English language (“motorvatin,” “coolerator,” “a la carty”) but he also gave us Chuck Berry: The Autobiography, rock’s first great memoir. Even Leonard Cohen bowed down: “All of us are footnotes to the words of Chuck Berry.”

Guitar gymnastics. Berry took a childhood trick he used to entertain his family—walking with knees bent, back and neck straight—and turned it into his signature stage move, which journalists labeled “the duck walk.” Hendrix’s guitar roast, Townshend’s windmill, Angus Young’s spastic one-legged hop—it all starts here.

Back to the Future and Pulp Fiction. Sure, these movies could’ve happened without Berry’s music, but Marty McFly’s climactic jam session and Vincent Vega’s epochal dance would have lacked significant spark. That goes double for life itself: The world would’ve kept on spinning had Chuck Berry not walking among us, but it shines brighter because he did.

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